Does the myth of the solo genius scientist contribute to imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you do not deserve your accomplishments, that you are a fraud. I’m always amazed at how common imposter syndrome is (is there anyone who doesn’t feel like an imposter at least sometimes?), and am glad that it gets discussed more now. If you’re looking for some great general posts on imposter syndrome and how to conquer it, check out this (by Hope Jahren) and this (by Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College).*

For this post, I want to focus on one particular question: does the myth of the solo genius scientist contribute to imposter syndrome?** By “the myth of the solo genius scientist”, I am referring to the idea of a lone scientist, hard at work in his lab (and it is pretty much always a “him” in these stories), making great discoveries all on his own. As Athene Donald wrote, “The heroic genius was always something of a myth, convenient shorthand to make it easier to make a narrative out of the act of discovery; an exciting tale, but not a very accurate depiction of how science and scientists operate.”

I think people would generally agree that, as has been the general trend in science, ecology has become much more collaborative in the past decades. In some cases, the increase in the number of authors on papers might simply reflect a trend towards more generous coauthorship (I have a post on this topic planned), but I think it also reflects a true shift towards more collaborative work. Tackling interesting questions requires a diversity of approaches. As I wrote in that earlier post, “There is no way that one person can do everything. In my case, I am finding more and more often that the questions I’m interested in require genetic skills that I do not possess. And I am very, very good at getting myself in over my head with a planned theoretical analysis. This is part of why collaborations are so valuable.”

As I’ve thought about questions of imposter syndrome recently, I’ve realized that I feel the most like a fraud when thinking of projects that are collaborative, and I wonder if it relates to the myth of the solo genius scientist. When there’s a paper that is just from my lab, I feel like that is somehow “better”, in that it shows self-sufficiency (even though, of course, it was still collaborative with the people in my lab.) People tend to hold up solo-authored papers as especially noteworthy. While pre-tenure, I had multiple people tell me that I should make sure I had papers independent of my long-term collaborator, Spencer Hall, even though he and I were at roughly the same career stage.*** The implication was, clearly, that people might not know what I had done vs. what Spencer had done, and that might be held against me – in other words, I might be viewed as having ridden his coattails. Sometimes this annoyed me; I knew I had brought valuable skills and ideas to the collaboration and I felt like it would be ridiculous not to collaborate with Spencer and his lab just to avoid those criticisms, since I think the work that results benefits tremendously from our collaboration. But, when I was feeling less confident, I wondered if maybe those people were right.

This is why I think the answer to my question is “yes”. I think it’s no accident that I don’t feel especially impostery when I collaborate with someone on genetic analyses, but I do when I collaborate on theoretical work. Women are stereotyped as not being good at math (as far as I know, there is no such stereotype related to molecular work), and so I think that triggers more of the feelings of fraud. To be clear, I’m not saying that I think that’s the entire reason for imposter syndrome, but I think it can contribute.

So, I think it’s important that we recognize that probably those solo geniuses that the myths are about weren’t really operating on their own. Even if they were, science today is highly collaborative, which means that new skills are required. In particular, the ability to recognize when you need assistance from others to tackle interesting questions and the ability to establish and maintain successful collaborations are important scientific skills, too, even if they might not be viewed as being as important as sheer brilliance.

Do you suffer from imposter syndrome? If so, do you think feeling like you should be able to do it all on your own (but can’t) contributes?


* On the general subject of dealing with imposter syndrome, I like these sections of the posts I linked to above:

From Maria Klawe:

Ask for help and take it, recognize that such feelings are common and are often connected to high degrees of success, surround yourself with people who encourage you, share your feelings with others, celebrate your successes, be willing to try new approaches if your usual one isn’t working, and don’t let your fears stop you from giving your best effort.

and this from Hope Jahren:

By the way, the folks telling you that you should just grow a thick skin and not care what people say are not your real friends. A thin skin is the way to go. Only if you let the criticism cut to the bone can you fully examine the wound and clean it up so it can heal. But promise me that you’ll also let the praise in, and absorb it just as deeply.

** This is certainly related to the topic of this new Science article that just came out (summary by Scicurious here), arguing that the view in certain fields that raw, innate talent is the main determinant of success leads to the underrepresentation of women and African Americans in those fields.

*** When preparing my tenure dossier, I was advised to address head-on the topic of my long-term collaboration with Spencer, and to lay out what we’d each contributed. I did. As far as I know, it ended up not being an issue.

15 thoughts on “Does the myth of the solo genius scientist contribute to imposter syndrome?

  1. Nice post Meg, lots to chew on here. I had a bunch of unconnected thoughts, to the point where I was considering doing several separate comments. But I decided to go with a single randomly-ordered list.🙂

    1. Re: that Science paper on the correlation between the association between male dominance of a field and the perception that success in the field depends on rare innate talent, it would’ve been really interesting to see the survey responses broken down by gender. Although maybe they wouldn’t differ much, because maybe women who end up becoming, say, math profs tend to share the view that success in math depends on rare innate talent? Any survey of people within a field is going to be subject to selection biases if the goal is to help explain the composition of the field. In an ideal world, you’d also survey people who’ve dropped out of the field, or who considered it but decided not to enter it in the first place.

    2. Still with that Science paper, looks like there’s a third variable that would correlate with the other two: how math-heavy the field is (especially if you don’t count “hypothesis-testing statistics of the sort most scientists are taught” as “math”). The correlations aren’t perfect of course (e.g., philosophy and musical composition aren’t mathematical at all EDIT: as a commenter notes below, there are subfields of philosophy and music that are highly mathematical). Cathy O’Neil (“Mathbabe”) has lots of posts on this, emphasizing that the perception that you can’t do math unless you have an innate aptitude for it is a perception that starts early (way before college) and so has to be fought early if it’s going to be overcome:

    3. Re: the myth of the “lone” genius, it’s interesting that the working culture of professional mathematicians actually is quite interactive, or so I’ve read. It’s not manifested as papers with lots of co-authors. But it’s my understanding that most mathematicians are always talking to one another about the problems they’re working on and giving one another ideas and feedback. Paul Erdos was a paradigmatic (and extreme) example. Andrew Wiles is the exception that proves the rule, apparently. He slaved away on his own, in secret, for years on Fermat’s Last Theorem. When he sprung the proof on the world, other mathematicians were massively impressed–Wiles does indeed seem to have been a lone genius. But they also thought his way of working was very odd, to the point of being unhealthy in some sense.

    4: Following on from the previous point, I agree that the notion of a “lone genius” is mostly a myth (not entirely–I do think there are rare people like Wiles or Einstein for whom the label seems apt). But I do think there’s some kind of distribution across people in terms of how inclined they are to work collaboratively and/or how effective they are when they do so. I’m neither a loner nor a genius (in case that needed saying!), but I’m probably less inclined to seek out collaborations, and less good at collaborating, than the average ecologist.

    5. Re: imposter syndrome, I tend to be most impressed by work that’s very different than my own in some way. Work that makes me feel like “I could never do that”. Which doesn’t make me feel like an imposter necessarily, though it does make me conscious of my own limitations and weaknesses. But whether or not I feel that way doesn’t depend at all about whether the work in question was done by a “lone genius”. For instance, I have an old post on how the original WBE paper on metabolic scaling blew me away, to the point that I accidentally embarrassed myself in a job interview: But I’m also totally blown away by NutNet (, precisely because it’s *not* the work of a lone genius. It’s a highly collaborative effort, and so it blows me away because I feel like I could never think of or organize something like that.

    6. Re: preparation of your tenure dossier, yeah, I do think top research universities want to make sure their faculty aren’t just riding someone else’s coattails, that they’re leaders in the field rather than followers (or that they’re operating the machine rather than cogs in the machine). It’s not clear to me whether this inhibits collaboration, or how to change it if it does. As long as universities are hiring individuals who will have academic freedom to do whatever research they please, then they’re surely (and rightly) going to want to evaluate those individuals as individuals. Of course, that evaluation could and probably should include “how good are you at starting, fostering, and making indispensable contributions to productive collaborations?” But when reading the stronger advocates of open, shared, highly-collaborative ways of working, one sometimes gets the sense that they want to see something more radical. That they want to see academia change so that it’s no longer individuals getting hired and evaluated *as individuals* at all. Although what alternative they have in mind is usually unclear. An old post of Brian’s is relevant here:

    • Great thoughts, Meg and Jeremy.
      Jeremy, regarding your point #2, I actually think of philosophy and music composition as being very mathematical in nature. While academics in those fields might not be actively using mathematical models, those fields require a significant amount of training in abstract mathematical-involved ideas, including formal logic (philosophy) and musical theory of keys/scales which can actually be fairly abstract and algebraic (music composition). It is interesting to think about that, and I might have to reach out to some friends/colleagues in those particular fields for some extra insights and perspectives.

      • You read my mind Katie B! You’re absolutely right that there are branches of philosophy and music theory that are both highly abstract and very mathematical–formal logic and theory of musical scales, respectively. I thought about noting that, but hesitated because the bulk of philosophy, while abstract in certain ways, isn’t abstract in the same way mathematics is abstract and isn’t at all mathematical. Think of ethics for instance.

        Agree that it would be very interesting to get the perspective of practicing philosophers and music theorists on this. I’ll try to ask some of my friends in our Philosophy dept. next time I’m over there. Hope you’ll come back and pass on the thoughts of your own friends in philosophy and music…

        It’s funny, the only person I’ve ever met who was studying the theory of music composition was a female undergrad. N=1, obviously…

        Another thought I had was that mathematics and musical composition are two fields in which there are child prodigies, or at least there are thought to be. I know nothing about serious studies of child prodigies, I only have vague n-th hand knowledge of the famous examples (Mozart etc.). I suspect that the example of child prodigies is one thing that tends to make people think that certain fields require an innate “genius”. But it’s worth noting that there are (or are thought to be) child prodigies in the visual arts, which I don’t think are especially male dominated (are they?). And conversely, some of the most male-dominated fields in that Science paper aren’t fields in which there are ordinarily thought to be child prodigies (economics, philosophy). So it’s not immediately obvious to me how the whole child prodigy angle fits in here…

  2. I doubt it. You could equally well claim that collaborations are ideally suited to blame other people for your own shortcomings, thus counteracting the impostor syndrome. Most of my papers are single authored, and I am doing a good job of deriving my sense of inadequacy from that.

    • Yes, it’s certainly possible that we all feel impostery (for whatever reason), and then feel inadequate about whatever way we happen to do science.

  3. Via Twitter, Euan Ritchie suggests that universities prize “selfishness”:

    With respect to Euan, I think that’s an unfortunate choice of words (UPDATE: and I’m happy to see that Euan agrees: There are many reasons why people might not have collaborations. As I noted in a comment above, I myself have done a fair bit of solo work–because I had all the ideas, skills, time, ability, resources, etc. needed to go all the way from project conception to write-up myself. Does that make me “selfish”?

    As for universities “prizing” selfishness, I honestly don’t think they do, in my experience. What they prize is individuals making important research contributions that are attributable to those individuals. Yes, in practice that often means solo work, or work by one’s trainees–but not necessarily. For instance, as Meg notes in her post, she described how her contributions to her collaboration with Spencer were substantial, and essential to the success of the collaboration–and Michigan was totally fine with that (Meg, correct me if I’m wrong here). If Michigan literally prized “selfishness”, they’d have told Meg to quit collaborating with Spencer, or anyone.

    I’d hope we could have a conversation about the appropriate ways to apportion credit and reward in a world in which collaborative work is increasingly common and important without resorting to name-calling. UPDATE: Deleted because Euan made clear that name-calling wasn’t his intent.

  4. Read your post the same day as I read this in the Harvard postdoc email list:
    DATE: Tuesday, Jan 27
    TIME: 4:30 – 6:00pm, Reception to Follow
    Do you ever feel like a fraud? Like you don’t belong at Harvard? You’re not alone! Learn to cope with these thoughts at Overcoming Imposter Syndrome.

    And it made me think a bit more about imposter syndrome. I mean, there is so much stochasticity in our field/careers/science/life. There is a goodly amount of luck involved all along the way for everyone — who looks at your proposals, who reviews your papers, what jobs are available when you’re looking, whether there is grant money available for your specialty when you need research money, whether you can your partner can find employment in the same place at the same time, and on and on. Obviously, there is hard work and talent and so forth. But there IS also luck.

    The coincidence of your post and this workshop announcement made me think about it because my postdoc position being at Harvard is a lucky one. There was a job opening that matched my (odd) skill set really well at exactly the right time. I was not competitive for the Harvard fellowships (no first-authored papers out yet), but my skill set mattered more than papers for this particular postdoc position. So do I “belong” at Harvard? Who knows. I got the job. But there WAS luck involved.

    Don’t you think it’s unhealthy for people to think the opposite extreme of imposter syndrome — that all their achievements are due exclusively to their own merits? What is best place to be along that mental spectrum from “I’m a fraud” to “all my successes are because I’m just that awesome”?

    • “What is best place to be along that mental spectrum from “I’m a fraud” to “all my successes are because I’m just that awesome”?”

      Somewhere in the middle, not *too* far from wherever the truth is?

      Ok, that’s a really obvious/boring answer. If I could make it less boring, I would. But I can’t. Right off the top of my head, I can think of really good scientists who varied a fair bit in the extent to which they attributed their success to good fortune (e.g., good mentors, lucking into good jobs or important discoveries, etc.) vs. their own awesomeness. There are great scientists who are really humble, and great scientists who are really arrogant–which doesn’t change the fact that they’re all great scientists. And that’s even before we recognize that people can’t necessarily say with any reliability how their lives would’ve turned out had some ‘lucky’ event not happened. For instance, I know someone who got a great job at a top university, which he/she attributes in part to having gotten lucky in the interview–the questions s/he was asked after his/her job talk were right in his/her wheelhouse and set him/her up to look brilliant. Without wanting to deny that he/she was lucky in the interview, who’s to say that if that bit of luck hadn’t happened, he/she wouldn’t have gotten some other equally great job? Because after all, he’s/she’s also really good.

      One could argue that your place on the “mental spectrum” only matters insofar as it affects your professional decision-making. I can imagine situations in which both feeling like an imposter, and whatever its opposite is, could cause you to make bad decisions about what jobs to apply for, where to submit your papers, what lines of research to undertake, etc. Conversely, I can imagine situations in which both feeling like an imposter, and its opposite, would cause you to make good professional decisions. For instance, you highlighted your own good fortune, hinting that you feel like you’ve needed a lot of luck to get to where you are. But given the opportunity of a plum postdoc at Harvard, you seized it, which I’m sure was the right professional decision.

      Re: stochasticity and its effects on your career trajectory, I vaguely recall linking to various studies showing that “luck” is most important early in one’s career. That makes sense to me and jives with my own anecdotal experience. But I can’t find the links just now.

    • I sometimes wonder about what is at the opposite extreme. Is it imposter syndrome at one end and narcissism at the other? I agree that the opposite extreme would not be a good place to be, either. But where in the middle is the “right” place is tough to say, though an interesting question.

      I also totally agree that luck plays a role for everyone. There are few universalities, but that is one!

    • I personally think the opposite of impostor syndrome is entitlement. I wonder though if being halfway between entitlement and impostor syndrome on a one-dimensional spectrum is the goal/optimal place to be. Genuine healthy self confidence in high quantities does not turn into entitlement/narcissism. Rather, among other things, it entails being self-contained enough to be fine with getting rejected a lot without turning that into a statement of self-worth. It is sort of a different axis.

      And Margaret – I am totally with you on the very large role that luck plays in academic careers (all careers for that matter but certainly academic).

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